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Trust in politics: down, down, deeper and down?

In the last couple of years there have been three major events in British politics: the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, the 2010 General Election and the phone hacking scandal of 2011. In this post we look at the impact of the first two; and in our next we assess the effect of the third.

A survey commissioned by Committee on Standards in Public Life the sheds some light on this question. Conducted in December 2010, the survey focused on how the public perceived the conduct of politicians, public officials and other professional groups, and on the degree of trust these groups engendered. It was published today.

Because the survey replicates many questions asked in 2004, 2006 and 2008, we can track the course of public opinion over a significant length of time. For obvious reasons, one might expect the expenses scandal to have had stark consequences for the repute of, and trust in, politicians. On the other hand, general elections serve to ‘cleanse’ the political system by throwing out the rascals, and so generate a temporary boost in public regard for politicians.

Even though the survey cannot disentangle these two countervailing effects, it does show their net impact. And the results make uncomfortable reading for the political class.

Amongst many other findings, the report shows that perceptions of the actual behaviour of MPs have become much more negative since 2008. This is made plain from the percentages subscribing to the notion that all or most MPs are:

  • ‘dedicated to doing a good job for the public’: 26 per cent in 2010 (-20 per cent from 2008);
  • ‘competent at their jobs’: 26 per cent (-10 per cent);
  • ‘telling the truth’: 20 per cent (-6 per cent);
  • ‘making sure that public money is spent wisely’: 18 per cent (-10 per cent);
  • ‘in touch with what the public thinks is important’: 15 per cent (-14 per cent).

Other questions reveal that:

  • 33 per cent of respondents rated ‘overall standards of conduct’ in public life as (very or quite) high, down from 41 per cent in 2008;
  • trust in one’s local MP has fallen from 48 per cent (in 2008) to 40 per cent.

Clearly, in December 2010 the fallout from the expenses scandal had not dissipated in spite of the General Election. The Coalition might have been described as marking a ‘new politics’ but so far as many in the public were concerned it was obviously not new enough.

Can MPs to redeem themselves in the public mind? Or have they been permanently tainted by the 2009 expenses scandal? We address those questions in our next post when we look at the impact of the more recent phone hacking scandal on trust.

Cees van der Eijk and Jonathan Rose

Published inBritish Politics

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